Deconstructing Richard

Richard Hamburger transformed the Dallas Theater Center into a regional marvel, but as he faces a million dollar debt and a host of angry critics, is it curtains for his daring vision?

Richard Hamburger, Dallas Theater Center's artistic director, has a taste for the perverse. Maybe that's why he's preparing to stage Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill's claustrophobic drama about one tormented family's day of bitter revelation, in the Arts District Theater, DTC's gigantic downtown space. That's roughly the artistic equivalent of a chamber trio playing in an aircraft hangar.

Hamburger is well aware of the drama's smothering intimacy and how most directors have capitalized on it. To him, that's part of the fun.

"This is going to be a very Beckett staging," Hamburger coos, his small, curly-haired form hovering over the miniaturized set for Long Day's Journey in his office. His fingers sweep over the pair of dining tables, mirror images of each other that will be placed 80 feet apart. So giddy is he in discussing his next project, he appears ready to whip out some action figures, move them about the tiny stage, and begin delivering a scene in falsetto and basso profundo voices. But he sticks with describing the play. "No walls, no doors, no production tricks. I want to remove anything that might get between the actors, to show how symbiotic this family is."

Don't dismiss this as a harebrained artistic decision borne of the desire to play provocateur with a familiar classic. During DTC's '92-'93 season, Hamburger's first as artistic director, he smashingly performed a similar feat by staging Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a play about the stultifying consequences of marital role-playing, in the barn-like Arts District Theater. He did a technical "deconstruction" of the play, stripping away the set and moving row upon row of seats closer to the stage, to the puzzlement of some DTC board members (and, one presumes, the consternation of the poor bastards who had to move the seats). The audience was ringside for the final confrontation between Nora and her husband, which took place on a bare stage. At the end, Nora walked through the audience, out the door, and into the Dallas night.

"I thought about having a car waiting and then driving her away," Hamburger remembers. He rolls his eyes. "But then I decided that would be stupid."

Hamburger, who two productions from now will end his sixth season steering the Dallas Theater Center's art, is marvelous at this kind of tightrope walk, maintaining a disciplined course across outrageous material. The shows he has directed for DTC have been distinguished for taking audiences to the edge of the abyss. The man who introduced interracial gay toilet sex to the house that Frank Lloyd Wright built can hardly be accused of coddling his audiences. Even he professes some wonder that he's gotten away with so much.

His vision, which is epic and adversarial, scores bull's-eyes for its professionalism and quality control. The combination has made the Dallas Theater Center an unparalleled forum for emerging voices and fringe dwellers, certainly in the Southwest and perhaps across the country.

Still, there's speculation that Hamburger's noncommercial choices in the commercial field of regional theater might have cost him the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater that Houston's more conventional Alley Theatre won two years ago. For all that New York is championed as the theatrical capital of America, Broadway is ruled mercilessly by the box office. And until the '97-'98 season, Hamburger has been notorious for ignoring the easy cash upon which many regional artistic directors have built their careers by restaging shows that have the imprimatur of recent Broadway runs.

The results have been felt by DTC, or so goes more speculation. It's operating under a $1.2 million deficit, although how much was accrued under Hamburger and how much under his predecessor Adrian Hall is unclear. The center also recently hired Edith Love, a woman with a national reputation for whipping company budgets into shape, as managing director.

Perhaps it's impossible to say whether Broadway snubbed Hamburger because he ignored his New York roots, choosing instead to stage works by former local playwrights such as Octavio Solis (Santos y Santos) and too-out-there-even-for-off-Broadway meditations on history and identity such as the multimedia The Sternheim Project. But one group that is annoyed with Hamburger is easier to identify--actors who live and work in Dallas, or at least those whom he doesn't regularly hire.

The widespread perception is that Hamburger goes out of town to cast major roles, doesn't attend much local theater, and doesn't care about performers who toil in Dallas' busy but unglamorous theater scene. The Leon Rabin Awards, which will celebrate their fourth year in 1998 and are chosen by the 2,000-member Dallas Theater League, have snubbed the very talented Hamburger every year in the best director category.

Hamburger's reaction to criticism, whether of his unconventional play choices or his casting decisions, is plainspoken and unapologetic: "I know I'm not going to win any popularity contests."

When Richard Hamburger stepped into the Dallas Theater Center's artistic director position in 1992, he inherited the aftermath of a tragedy.

Ken Bryant, the previous director, had died more than a year before following a traffic accident. Death, especially one as untimely as Bryant's, can do much to burnish one's reputation. But many people recall Bryant's brief DTC regime with fondness, if for nothing else than that he was considerably more diplomatic--and, apparently, more interested in involving Dallas actors in the Theater Center's long-term vision--than the DTC's previous director, Adrian Hall.

"Hall was not out to win any popularity contest," says Kurt Kleinmann, artistic director of Pegasus Theater and president of the Dallas Theater League, echoing Hamburger's quote unknowingly. "He was always criticizing Dallas audiences as 'white bread' and would make statements in front of people like, 'If all the actors in Dallas were drowning, I'd only save the ones I work with.'"

"He could be petty and kind of mean," confirms Katharine Owens, co-artistic director of the Undermain Theatre. "He held onto the rights of a play we wanted but that everyone knew he had no intention of staging--Goose and Tom Tom. We eventually secured the rights to it, mostly because of his assistant. But Hall could be downright obstructive."

Hall could not be reached for comment.
Hall left in 1989 under widespread rumors that his productions were lavish, heedless spending sprees. Bryant took over until the Theater Center was left reeling from his unexpected death in 1991. Hamburger, then working with his wife, Melissa Cooper, at the Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine, guest-directed one production for DTC. After a 14-month stretch without official creative leadership, Hamburger arrived as the new artistic director.

He was heralded by a city that's tended to have a self-esteem problem where culture is concerned. His credentials were impressive: the child of two New Yorker writers; attendee at Juilliard and the Yale School of Drama who had studied directing in London; winner of a Rockefeller Grant for one of his two plays; and a former clown who'd toured for a year with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey. The Dallas Morning News predictably groveled with a "High Profile" feature in 1993, marveling at this exotic Northeastern creature--a native Manhattanite and Ivy Leaguer who didn't even know how to drive! (He's since learned, and claims to be something of an addict.)

"Dallas was definitely a new experience, but I've grown to love it," he says. "Melissa and I weren't sure what to expect, so we told ourselves we were pioneers. There's an improvisatory quality to it, a sense of self-invention. You have a building that Frank Lloyd Wright built (the DTC's Kalita Humphreys) right next to an abandoned parking lot.

"And the courtesy level is definitely much higher down here than in New York. But that's a double-edged sword. People will act politely toward you, but you often don't know what they're really thinking."

More than anything else, what seems to excite Hamburger is the raw potential of Dallas. "Let's face it; we don't have much natural beauty around here. But I see that as a perfect opportunity for artists to develop their craft, to create beauty in a vacuum. If people don't come to Dallas for the scenery, why not come for the culture?"

In relocating his family to the buckle of the Bible Belt, Hamburger wasn't stepping into a theatrical vacuum. Dallas has registered national stage accomplishments over the past 50 years, from the legendary Margo Jones' crucial sponsorship of the early careers of Tennessee Williams and William Inge, to Maria Callas' admiration for local audiences, to the participation of folks such as Charles Laughton, Burgess Meredith, and Zero Mostel in the early life of the Dallas Theater Center. Paul Baker, the DTC's founding artistic director who ruled the institution for 23 years before the board essentially forced him into retirement, was lauded by national critics for his daring productions of classics way back in the late '50s--at Baylor University, of all places.

"People always talk about how conservative Dallas is," Hamburger notes. "But from what I know, the Dallas Theater Center has always supported artistic directors who make controversial artistic decisions, who staged plays that everyone says the city wasn't ready for. And mostly, our audiences have responded."

But not always in the most cosmopolitan of fashions. There was that little embarrassment in 1993, when Dallas police, at the insistence of a deeply offended ticket-buyer, slapped Dallas Theater Center with a citation for operating a sexually oriented business without a license. The outraged patron was reacting to the male nudity in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. Our boys in blue backed down when the effort made news in places like Time and CNN. "Of all the things I thought I'd get in trouble for, it never occurred to me that [the nudity in the Guare play] would do it," Hamburger recalls. "Maybe that's an example of culture shock. By the time I arrived here, I was accustomed to seeing nudity on stage. I honestly didn't think anyone else would be shocked by it."

What has surprised others is the degree of sexual frankness in several shows that Hamburger has directed, including both parts of Tony Kushner's "gay fantasia," Angels in America. "I thought I'd see pigs fly before I saw two men simulate anal sex on the stage of the Dallas Theater Center," confirms the Undermain's Owens, referring to a scene in Millennium Approaches, the first half of Angels. Equally startling was Hamburger's incendiary staged reading of Chay Yew's Porcelain at 1993's Festival of the Unexpected, which included local actors such as Stephen Kalstrup (who's since moved on) and Bruce DuBose. Without leaving the stools on which they sat, two of the actors passionately simulated a blow job given in a public restroom. In the case of both Kushner and Yew, graphic sex wasn't the point, but a means of driving home larger themes. Nobody stormed out angrily, and, according to Hamburger, nobody complained later. Indeed, he insists that he's never been scolded about the content of his plays or told to avoid certain material--not by a DTC board trustee, not by former managing director Robert Yesselman or current top businesswoman Edith Love.

Still, you can't entirely discount the potential negative impact of such displays in Dallas. While discussing Hamburger's bold programming, Katharine Owens confirms that the Undermain Theatre, which has enjoyed strong critical, corporate, and private support for the last decade, has sustained financial damage from its more controversial fare. It lost a Meadows grant because of disapproval of John O'Keefe's violent, sexually explicit health-insurance satire The Deatherians, and another major corporation that has supported The Undermain for years asked that it be warned about controversial future productions.

"Raphael [Parry, Undermain's other artistic director] and I joked about putting on our next program 'Nobody you know has contributed money to this show,'" Owens says. "Still, generally speaking, we've enjoyed a lot of freedom, but that's because our shows are small, and we maintain a relatively tight budget. What Richard has done working with $3 million and the board of a Dallas institution that's conservative at heart is pretty amazing."

It's not just sex that Hamburger has flaunted in the faces of Dallas' top earners, whether they be audience members or contributors. He has broadened the color scheme of a stage that currently plays to an almost exclusively white audience. He produced two main-stage shows with all-African-American casts (Spunk, a virtual lesson in ebonics adapted from the works of Zora Neale Hurston, and Thunder Knocking on the Door, a fable that employed the themes of the great blues songwriters). Santos y Santos, a Texas family saga about the tension brought about by assimilation, had an all-Latino cast, and Festivals of the Unexpected featured numerous all-ethnic small performances.

Hamburger suggests there's an element of confrontation to these shows, just as there was with his selection of Six Degrees of Separation, which concerns a young black man who hoodwinks a privileged, highly educated white couple with charming lies about his past. "Often, what I see in the city where I work is reflected in my choices," he admits. "When I was in Portland, I saw a policeman knock somebody to the ground, so I said, 'Let's stage Accidental Death of an Anarchist.' Driving around Dallas, I see a big class and race division in neighborhoods that are side by side, so I chose Six Degrees because it seemed to address certain local issues.

"Dallas is at the center of the country, literally and figuratively," Hamburger says. "What's happening here with race relations is much more indicative of our national state than anything in, say, Boulder or Portland."

Love, DTC's new managing director, has personal experience with attempts at integrating ethnic shows and white audiences. The artistic director at The Alliance, the Atlanta theater where she came from, attempted a programming change to reflect that Southern city's racial makeup.

"He added more African-American programming, but just a tad," she says. "And at first, there was a significant drop-off in overall attendance. But the goal was to increase black attendance. Atlanta has many fine African-American educational institutions, so the black middle class is stronger there. We wanted to draw from that. The audience went from 1 percent to 18 percent black, so that goal was a success."

While most agree that Hamburger has fought the good fight in bringing stories that reflect racial and sexual issues to a city that would rather ignore both, his efforts at nurturing a local arts scene are more debatable. Why is it that he imports so many actors, especially for the major roles in productions, when there are plenty of underemployed performers living here?

"I understand that Richard has only been here five years, and it takes time to build up a trust, to get to know a community," says the Dallas Theatre League's Kurt Kleinmann. "And I well know the baggage that comes with being an artistic director. But there's been unhappiness from talented local actors who aren't working when they see people they don't recognize on the Theater Center stage. He doesn't mix very much in the community; he doesn't see a lot of local productions, although John [Moscone, DTC's assistant director] has done a good job of taking up that slack."

To be fair to Hamburger, every artistic director over the Dallas Theater Center, with the exception of the late Ken Bryant, has come under fire for building "a fortress on Turtle Creek." For the better part of 23 years, Paul Baker used graduate students from his programs at Baylor and San Antonio's Trinity University (often, people charged, at the expense of having more professional performances) and didn't begin to mix until he was forced to admit Equity Actors back in the mid-'70s. Adrian Hall created a company using both Dallas actors and out-of-towners who essentially became Dallas actors, but was notoriously undiplomatic about his opinion of much local talent. He received his share of hate mail because of it.

"I grew up believing Broadway was the be-all and end-all of performing," Kleinmann says. "And then I saw shows there and realized New York has good actors and bad actors, like everyone else. I've since seen productions all across the country, and geography has nothing to do with talent. There's a perception that if you're an actor in a place like Texas, it's because you can't cut it where the 'real actors' work. I hope Richard hasn't bought into that."

Kleinmann acknowledges what can be proven with a glance at Hamburger's six seasons. Hamburger has slowly employed more local actors each year. The 1997 production of A Christmas Carol, perhaps DTC's most important show in terms of revenue, employed almost solely local actors and was directed by the Undermain's Raphael Parry. (The glaring exception was Todd Waite, a Canadian actor, in the role of Scrooge.)

But for the most part, Kleinmann insists, "Dallas actors get the 'tennis anyone?' roles. And many times, the actors he flies in from other cities and puts up here--at considerable expense--are just sort of...adequate. You watch these people and think, a certain local performer could've done this role as well or even better."

It's easy to be an armchair artistic director (and Hamburger has to contend with many of them), but from this critic's perspective, Kleinmann's point is well taken. Still, you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Hamburger imported Kathleen Dennehy (Brian's daughter) for the role of the drug-addled Mormon wife in both parts of Angels in America. Her combination of delirious intelligence and crack comic timing was utterly distinctive.

But for three productions now, including the current run of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, DTC has employed a male lead that the program trumpets as "one of Canada's top actors." Todd Waite has provided a stable, professional presence, but he seemed overwhelmed by the quick character changes in Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges. He was far too young and gooey for the role of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and currently benefits An Ideal Husband mostly because his blandness seems suited for the role of popular politician. When you consider that DTC pays transportation, housing, health benefits, and a weekly salary to Waite, his work seems all the more disappointing. Hamburger acknowledges, without naming names, that "there are times when I could've cast a local actor, and probably should've. It certainly cuts down on our expenses. But the local actors I know and have relied upon aren't always in town for the parts I want them for. And when you audition, you hire on an impression, a gut feeling."

The problem with the criticism, Hamburger insists, is that "many of the stories come from the actors who didn't get the part. We audition many more actors than we hire, and the ones who get the job aren't going to complain, because they're so grateful to be working."

After he was selected as artistic director, but before he arrived, Hamburger says, "I got phone calls asking me, 'What's your policy on hiring local actors?' I knew what the politics would be."

So what is your policy on hiring local actors, Richard?
"Casting is a meritocracy. I'm not going to make any friends with any decisions I make, but I must be free to hire the people I think are best for the role. Yes, I want to employ as many local actors as I can, but I don't want to hire somebody just because they live in Dallas. Maybe it's because I've worked in so many different cities--I tend to want to broaden the search. I want to keep all possibilities open."

The Undermain's Owens, who maintains a company of exclusively local performers, lends her support to Hamburger. "I think Richard has smartly responded to the pressure by hiring more Dallas actors," she says. "But I'm uncomfortable with dictating artistic choices from outside. We get enough pressure from different places to hire actors because of this gender or that race or this promise. The artistic director must be granted the freedom to make independent decisions, even if they're unpopular."

Speaking from her own experience, Owens says, "The DTC under Richard has been much more generous. They've worked with our actors. Richard has talked about collaborating with us for a while now. Almost the entire set of The Seagull (a recent Undermain production) came from the Theater Center.

"There are many more things local artists could do to help nurture the scene besides tell Richard who to cast," she adds. "Like help push through a hotel-rental car tax that would benefit the arts."

Local press reports suggest that the annual Leon Rabin Awards, selected to honor the "best" local talent by 2,000 members of the local talent pool, have snubbed Richard as best director during the last three ceremonies. The Dallas Theatre Critics Forum, on the other hand, has cited Hamburger as best director four out of the last five years. Bias very possibly informs both extremes: Local theater people don't feel they owe Hamburger anything, while critics can be dazzled by the sparkling pedigree and high production values Hamburger brings to his work.

Hamburger insists he doesn't feel snubbed by the Leons "because they've been very generous to us, especially for our performances. And I understand that it's an award for local talent from local talent. But to tell you the truth, I'm not much into awards, period. I don't watch the national awards broadcasts on TV. That's all sort of showbiz to me. I get excited working with actors, developing plays."

Edith Love, who's been managing director of the Dallas Theater Center since October 1997, joins Hamburger for the last part of the interview. A tall woman with a smart, padded-shoulder jacket and a serious expression, she comes armed with statistics about the current financial health of the Dallas Theater Center. This imposing woman with the reputation for rigorous cost-cutting clearly does not relish giving sensitive information to a writer, though she is honest, and later in our talk relaxes and becomes quite charming.

Toward the end of her more than two decades at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, Love presided over a six-year period of debt elimination that painted her theater in the black. They were the last to receive a million-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which greatly helped balance the books. Still, what she accomplished from when she took over as managing director of the Alliance in 1985 until she left last year is eye-popping: The overall budget rocketed from $2 million to $8.5 million.

And the buzz goes thus: Love turned things around primarily by nudging it toward safer, more commercially friendly fare. The "commercial compromise" part she flatly denies, proclaiming, "The Alliance staged Angels in America in a Southern city. How much more controversial can you get?"

Indeed, the Amazon bean-counter reputation doesn't entirely mesh with the woman who commissioned and developed Alfred Uhry's Last Night at Ballyhoo, the comedy-drama that went on to win last year's Tony for Best Play. Nor does it explain her Jill-of-all-trades experience at the Alliance, from costume assistant to tech crew member to actress to director to, finally, budget savior of an ailing institution.

Still, Love's formidable accounting skills might suggest that the Dallas Theater Center is ready to rent the Kalita Humphreys for year-round bar mitzvahs. (Theater rental is indeed a major source of income now: "Having an office party? Want to rent the theater?" Hamburger interjects when we're discussing budget.)

How much money has the center lost in the last few years?
"With a budget of $3.7 million for the '97-'98 season, we're currently operating at a deficit of $1.2 million," Love says, then quickly raises a hand. "But it's important to realize that most of this debt is actually just on paper. We've established a cash reserve for lean times; $800,000 of the 'debt' is, essentially, money we already have in the bank."

The most recent breakdown of revenue goes like this: "Fifty-seven percent is earned, chiefly from ticket sales, tuition from our educational programs, and the fees we get for renting the theater," Love says. "Forty-seven percent is contributed to us from public and private resources."

The Dallas Morning News reported last year that about half of the 57 percent earned revenue came from ticket sales, which means the Dallas Theater Center received less than a third of its overall income from the box office. That story goes on to say that, in addition to the budget resurrection Love achieved with her former Atlanta theater, Tony-winner The Alley in Houston proved profitable enough to double its budget at a time when DTC's has remained stagnant.

Love insists that she's too new to make any hard connections between the current deficit and the last five years of Hamburger's leadership. "I know we increased our subscribers by 500 between this season and last. And my understanding is that more people saw A Christmas Carol this year than ever before. But the amount of the deficit has fluctuated from season to season. The important thing to realize is, a significant portion of it has been around since the late '80s."

Stories of audiences increasing and budgets quadrupling are the exception to the current regional theater rule: Companies all over the country have felt the sting of falling attendance and private contributions while city, state, and federal arts funding has plummeted. As president in '96 and '97 of LORT (League of Resident Theaters), Love points out, she helped negotiate union concessions for a third of the members who were under financial stress. The new buzzword in arts funding is "cultural tourism." Arts groups are attempting to convince civic leaders that galleries, museums, and stages are worth subsidizing not because art is good for us, but because they indirectly benefit a city's overall revenues by attracting people who come for the culture and spend money in other places.

All this is part of a national struggle; the more pressing local question is, Should the patrons who've enjoyed Richard Hamburger's brave, elaborate, lyrical stagings brace themselves for safer fare? The answer appears to be...maybe.

"The way you cut corners is by staging fewer shows with smaller casts," Love confirms of her own philosophy, which doesn't in and of itself mean less adventurous theater. The '97-'98 Dallas Theater Center season reflects this wisdom. But after five years of a Festival of the Unexpected, which has staged readings, works-in-progress, and some pretty "out there" fare, there will be no sixth one, and the festival's future is uncertain. Hamburger was quoted in The Dallas Morning News as saying the festival wouldn't continue because the private donor who largely funded that event had withdrawn his support. Now he qualifies his statement.

"That was a project of my wife, Melissa [Cooper, DTC artistic associate]," he says. "I had board members come to me and express disappointment, especially because the festival involved so much local talent. But we've done 10 such festivals in 10 years (they created the Little Festival of the Unexpected back in Portland) in addition to full seasons, and we're exhausted. Actually, the main reason is, we've had a child since we moved to Dallas. We'll probably bring the festival back, but reconfigure it for broader, more national appeal."

When asked point-blank whether she was hired to collar Hamburger's artistic ambitions, Love sits back in her seat and offers the first genuine laugh of a tense interview.

"People talk money vs. art, about the evil manager vs. the artist," she says. "But the truth, at least in our case, is more complicated. I think that because of my background I bring a more artistic perspective to my job, of understanding the creative process. In turn, Richard is more money-minded than other artistic directors I've met."

"I was on the search committee that approved Edith's appointment," Hamburger says. "Chemistry between myself and the managing director was a big issue, because nobody wanted a lot of fighting. Edith and I are the same age [48], and we started in theater at the same age [14]. Honestly, this is a professional marriage, a constant give-and-take. I think we respect each other, mainly because we agree on one thing: This is our budget."

If the current artistic director and managing director of Dallas Theater Center have an adversarial relationship, their rapport in front of the journalist is airtight. And last summer Hamburger announced he had signed a contract for five more years at DTC, at roughly the same time as Love's appointment was announced. If Hamburger secretly feels his choices are being compromised for economic concerns, he's agreed to weather four more seasons of it.

As far as scaling back the more experimental nature of some of his work, Hamburger admits to having gained some perspective during his tenure. "There are audiences out there who want to be challenged by a Sternheim Project, and there are audiences who enjoy a Having Our Say [Emily Mann's Broadway hit about a pair of 100-year-old African-American sisters, which DTC will stage as the last show of its current season]. A season should be balanced to please everybody. I enjoy both kinds of shows. And plus, now that I have a kid, I want to do more children's programming.

"Back during my first season, I chose A Doll's House, The Cherry Orchard, and A Streetcar Named Desire," he recalls. "And people complained that they were such safe, familiar plays. Well, they're saying the same thing about this season, with plays like An Ideal Husband and Long Day's Journey Into Night. But it's all how you look at the material. I mean, we're still dealing with Oscar Wilde and Eugene O'Neill, for God's sake."

Hamburger promises to make Long Day's Journey something more than everyone expects. And so far, his more predictable play selections have reflected an intriguingly contemporary political and social sensibility. The art of theater, after all, is doing more with less. But when talented artists are reduced to beggars, their imaginations wither in a particularly tragic way. Let's all pray Richard Hamburger doesn't die a pauper's death before our eyes.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...